I am pleased to welcome Debra Denker to the conversation.
Debra is the author of the novel War in the Land of Cain and of the non-fiction Sisters on the Bridge of Fire: One Woman’s Journeys in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A journalist and feature writer since the late 70’s, she wrote the June, 1985 National Geographic cover story “Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier,” illustrated by Steve McCurry’s now-famous photograph of the Afghan girl. Her work has appeared in numerous international publications, large and small, where she has written about subjects ranging from political and social documentary to alternative architecture, sustainable living, and energy healing. She is also a healer, photographer, and film-maker. Debra is founder and director of the Global Diversity Film Project, a project of the non-profit SkySpirit Foundation, which has made films on Tibet, South Africa, and local issues. Her latest film, Community Garden, shows the common ground between gardens in Santa Fe, where she now resides, and South Africa.
The Q & A
From where do you draw inspiration?
The beauty of the natural world inspires my photography and filmmaking, and my poetry. The strength of the human spirit, and the interconnectedness of all life inspire my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and filmmaking. I see and hear stories that need to be told, as in a documentary, and stories from “real life” that inspire fictional characters and scenarios, as in my novel set in 1980’s Afghanistan, War in the Land of Cain. In whatever medium I am working, I want to inspire, to tell stories that open hearts and lift spirits, and show our connectedness.
What is the hardest thing about your creative process?
Finding the time to be creative while simultaneously dealing with the pesky business of making a living, and marketing the creative works that I have completed. I’ve never been particularly good at marketing. I don’t know whether I dislike it because I’m bad at it, or whether I’m bad at it because I loathe most of the process and would rather be creating. I find that I need to go into complete retreat for a number of days in order to work on a screenplay, for example. I’m very fortunate that I love what I do for a living, from my healing and spiritual counseling work to my writing, photography, and filmmaking, but sometimes I crave the silence, the peace of not knowing what is going on in the chaotic world.
Do you work every day, or only when inspiration strikes?
I can say that I do something creative every day. Years ago when I interviewed Julia Cameron shortly after The Artist’s Way came out, I was struck by her saying that many daily activities, such as baking a cake, can be done in a creative way. I feel I am always thinking creatively, whether I am following inspiration about what to say to a client or what healing technique to use, deciding what to plant in my garden, or designing a website to market my creative work. I carry around a small high quality digital camera at all times because I often see beauty around me as I go about my day, or something quirky that either inspires me or makes me laugh. I’m always inspired to write, and have never had writer’s block (hope that’s not tempting fate!). I try to state things beautifully and succinctly, even in a Facebook posting. I do find that in order to write a long project, a screenplay or a book, I do better if I can set aside complete retreat time. I get into a flow (some might refer to it as “channeling”) and the words just pour out. I write very quickly, and can finish a first draft in a matter of days or weeks. I feel like I am connecting to Source, and the words, the stories, just overflow out of me. The characters and story take on their own lives. I don’t need to do extensive revision and editing. For me the actual writing is the joyous part of the process, even if the stories I am telling are sad and make me cry as I’m writing.
How do you feel about the current art market/art climate?
I wish that we in the U.S. had the kind of support for the arts that seems endemic to many other countries. I wish that everything was not so focused on the bottom line, which has created a risk-averseness, a fear of taking chances on anyone or anything that isn’t a sure money-maker. I’ve been told by publishers that I’m not yet famous enough for them to publish me. The state of the economy for the past few years is not helping book sales. I have a lot of friends for whom spending over $20 on a book is a luxury they cannot afford on the fixed income of disability or Social Security, and I think this is true of the general public. Publishing is in such transition (and disarray), with many people still resisting e-readers, even though the market share of e-books is growing. I need to find a literary agent who believes in the value of my overall talent and my specific projects, books and screenplays produced and in process, and sees that there is money to be made for me, him/her, and the publisher and movie producer who takes a chance.
Historically, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and European nations have nurtured film-makers creating feature and short films that are cutting-edge in content and style, and documentaries that are far from mainstream money-makers. I watch a lot of foreign films and have noticed that despite the cuts in the age of austerity, there is still significant government support for films in other countries. For example, the U.K. Film Council put in one million pounds of lottery money into early development of The King’s Speech, something we don’t see happening with feature films inHollywood at all, where the process of movie-making has become increasingly corporate.
If you could change one thing about the art world today, what would it be?
I would love to see a modern version of the WPA, the Works Progress Administration of the 1930’s. Let’s put the artists, photographers, film-makers, and writers to work doing something they are good at rather than forcing them into being business people, a talent not all of us have.
Talk a little bit about your current project and why you decided to embark on it:
Aside from marketing my recently published novel, War in the Land of Cain, I am revising a screenplay adaptation of the novel that I first wrote about 20 years ago. I had my 15 minutes of fame as a journalist for National Geographic and other publications in the mid-80’s, and there was a fair bit of interest in my personal story and in the novel and screenplay, but the timing was somehow wrong. That was the beginning of media consolidation—in 1980 there were 50 media companies controlling 90% of the media, and now we are down to 6—and the publishing industry did not seem interested in a novel on Afghanistan that humanized the Afghan people and showed the terrible toll of war.
I feel that now the world is ready for this story, so I’ve taken some retreat time to begin revising the screenplay. The version I had was in dot matrix, which shows how long ago I wrote it. A director of some note on the film festival circuit took it seriously all those years ago, but when I look at it today I can’t figure out why! I’m a much better screenwriter than I was 20 years ago, a much better writer overall. Life experience, the proverbial joys and heartaches, has honed my understanding of character and process. I’ve been reading quite a few books that have been adapted to the screen, such as The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and then watching the film versions so I can study what works best on the screen. Adaptation is an art form in and of itself. Film story is primarily visual, though good dialogue is also important. It has to be much more succinct than in the novel form. When I go on retreat, I write a chunk of the screenplay and then mull on it in between retreats. I’m also working with my friend L. Joseph Nichols on a screenplay adaptation of his spiritual sci-fi novel Return to Sirius, which is a lot of fun and a learning process for both of us.
I’m looking for production funding (a type of creative process) for my screenplay Spirit Mountain, a healing story set in northern New Mexico, and hope to be involved as a co-producer. It’s about the transformative power of love and Vision Quest, and deals with issues ranging from breast cancer to post-combat PTSD to the terrible toll of drunk driving to cross-cultural conflict and cooperation in our diverse corner of the world.
How does being a woman impact your work?
I feel we are living in a time when the Divine Feminine is in much-needed resurgence after 5,000 years of patriarchy. I long ago noticed that there is a more “feminine” whole-brained, compassionate approach to journalism, documentary photography, and filmmaking, in clear contrast to the prevailing cliché of the hard-assed male war correspondent. I met sensitive men whose respectful approach was more “feminie” and caring, and a few women who tried to out-ballocks the men, so it is sensibility rather than gender that determines how one works. When I was covering the war in Afghanistan and the refugees in Pakistan in the 80’s, I never even brought out the camera until I had had tea and talked with people for a while, and never took photos without permission. I learned Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, which helped to give a voice to women from remote rural areas without formal education, as I could tell their stories. I’ve always shied away from aggressively pursuing “the shot” and can tell some humorous stories about male photographers literally pushing in front of me and taking silly and dangerous risks in the process. Before I went to Afghanistan I took an advanced first aid course because I knew that given the choice of getting the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot and aiding someone who was wounded, I would help the wounded person.
This approach very much informs the attitude of the main character of War in the Land of Cain, the young American journalist Elizabeth Owen. The book is not autobiographical (I never met a dishy Afghan doctor), but that is one way that Elizabeth and I are alike. A lot of my readers, female and male, have told me how refreshing it is to have a story about war and about the hope of peace told from a feminine point of view rather than the usual clichéd male approach of warrior worship, if not worship of war.
If you had a chance to address a group of young girls, what would you say to inspire them?
Actually I did have that chance a few years ago when I was asked to address Girls Rock! atDesertAcademy. I was given the theme “Phenomenal Women,” from the Maya Angelou poem. I chose to speak about three women who have phenomenally influenced me: Mother Teresa, whom I had volunteered with and interviewed in 1979, just after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced; Fatana Said Gailani, founder of the Afghanistan Women Council, a women’s rights and human rights organization started in 1986 in Pakistan and continuing work in Afghanistan today; and my mother, Maria Denker, who took me traveling by car across what was then the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries of Europe when I was a teen-ager in the late 60’s.
All of these women have inspired me in various ways, through their courage, their desire to do service and make the world a better place, their indomitable hope, and their disregard for prevailing opinion.
Overall, my message to young girls is the old Joseph Campbell quote, “Follow your bliss.” Although following one’s bliss does not guarantee making a living doing so, our lives are immeasurably more satisfying if we can spend at least a part of them following our creative passions and our passions to make the world a better place.
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